Bathhouse stripped bare

Some things are quintessentially Korean: a love for kimchi (the pickles that are served with every meal); a symbiotic relationship with your mobile phone; and regular visits to your favourite jjimjilbang.

A jjimjilbang is not the same as a bathhouse. The Korean bathhouse concept - where naked people, segregated by sex, relax by simmering themselves in pools of water heated to different temperatures - has spread around the world.

The jjimjilbang, however, takes things a step further. It's a bathhouse on steroids. In addition to hot and cold pools, each jjimjilbang has an array of therapeutic hot rooms, each lined with a different mineral. The rooms sound like something from a fairy tale: there's the crystal salt room, the jade room, the amethyst room and the ice room. And that's just the beginning.

Koreans love visiting the jjimjilbang, partly for the reputed health benefits and partly because it's a great day out. Whether you go with your family or as a couple, for a modest entry fee of 10,000 won ($11) a person, you can stay as long as you like.

With food courts, video and internet rooms, play areas, even sleeping areas on offer, most visitors make a day of it. The larger jjimjilbang, which are open 24 hours, are popular with some travellers as a cheap overnight option.

My Korean friend Christina has volunteered to be my guide at Dragon Hill Spa, one of Seoul's largest jjimjilbang. It covers seven storeys and its facilities include a golf range, a barbecue and a rooftop garden.

At the ornate entrance, as elaborate as a Chinese temple, we're each issued with a pair of shorts and a top, to be worn in the jjimjilbang areas where both sexes mingle. But before we explore that, we strip off for a visit to the segregated sauna area.

The cavernous women's hall, which extends to a couple of outdoor areas, has saunas heated to different temperatures, as well as an array of baths. Should we start with the Goryeo ginseng bath or the natural rock seawater bath, filled with mineral-rich water pumped from a depth of 500 metres? After trying a couple of options, we wallow in the full-body massage baths, where the push of a button supplies relaxing jets of water along the length of your body.

Four of us are blissfully soaking up the bubbles when the jets suddenly turn off. To our distress, the button is beyond reach. Will we actually have to get up to switch it back on? That would ruin the mood completely. Fortunately, the woman next to me is clearly a regular. She lazily uses her foot to splash water towards the button and the jets spring back to life.


Although some Westerners might find the compulsory nudity confronting, it's worth noting that although I'm the only non-Korean in the baths, no one is interested in taking a peek - apart from my friend Christina. She's long been amused by the differences between us - I'm almost a foot taller than her and voluptuous where she is boyish. Now, as we both lie back in a warm bath, she gleefully says, "Look at your feet. They are so big, mine are so small." I grudgingly agree that is the case.

"Look at your leg," she exclaims, picking up my left leg and waving it in the air. "Yours are so long, mine are so short." I wait to see which body part she will focus on next.

"Look at your backside," she chortles. As I look at her, slightly gobsmacked, she chuckles, "So very big", running her hand down my back. It's the length of my back she's talking about, not the padding on my posterior. Thankfully, that conversation goes no further.

After an hour we're ready for more. Back in the locker room, we change into our jjimjilbang uniforms, which are worn in the areas open to both sexes. We head downstairs, where the atmosphere is decidedly mellow.

The lighting is pleasantly dim - the whole area has underfloor heating and it seems to be de rigeur to stretch out wherever you like. In some places, groups of friends and family lie back and chat; in others, lone sleepers catch up on much-needed shut-eye. We step carefully over their resting bodies as we leave to inspect the range of heated rooms on offer.

The rooms don't just look good - each one serves a different purpose. The room lined in amethyst will apparently improve blood circulation, the yellow mud room will help with digestive tract ailments and the jade tiles will boost your metabolism.

These rooms will burn your feet too: regular visitors need to bring a pair of cotton socks for this purpose.

Cotton socks are also necessary in the crystal salt room, where even the bricks are made of salt. To get the full detoxing effect of the chamber, you spray water on a vinyl cloth, lie down on it and inhale deeply, which encourages the salty air into your lungs.

While I'm enchanted by the jewel-like rooms, some of the most popular rooms are the simplest. The popularity of the pine tree sweating room is perhaps understandable - it smells divine - but another favourite is the oak-wood charcoal oven, which has four rooms, each heated to a different temperature. The ceilings are disconcertingly low - I feel like a loaf of bread sliding into an oven - but the warm air is pleasant on the skin.

The final stop before we hit the showers is the icehouse, where a snowman stands guard in the corner. The cold temperature is designed to contract your pores, leaving you feeling and looking healthy and glowing.

A whole afternoon has gone by and we've hardly begun to explore the delights of the jjimjilbang. We haven't watched a video, had a massage or even had a meal at the food court. In consolation, we each pick up a smoked egg on the way out - a traditional bathhouse treat. But one thing's certain: I'll be back.

The writer flew courtesy of Asiana Airlines.


* Getting there Asiana flies daily from Sydney to Seoul. See

The spa Dragon Hill Spa, 40-713 Hangang-no 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Phone + 82 2792 0001.

* Further information See